I am a political economist studying innovation, industry, and international security. Since September 2001, I have been advising industries and ministries on their issues of strategy, planning, and policy. My work aims to inform investors, industrialists, technologists, and policy-makers on how to effect, economically, a secure future.

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02 March 2010


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Very well written argument, James, but I have one very minor nit to pick. You wrote:

"Boeing, for the immediate future, doesn’t have a stake in anything but the -18 program."

Lest we forget about the F-15E, it's international flavors such as the F-15K and F-15SG, and Boeing's dabbling in "stealth-lite" with the F-15 Silent Eagle.

John S.,

Thanks. This is a very good point, and one that I simply overlooked. In the balance, I think that the effect is reinforcing: whatever Boeing is selling, -15s or -18s, the sales would be hugely facilitated by the absence of the -35.

If not F-35, what are you going to have to replace all those hundreds of F-16's coming off-line within the next decade? They have been in heavy use through the current wars, which is one of the reasons they are accumulating all those hours. You need a replacement. A UCAV is not going to be available in this role within such a short period of time.

MIchael, I think that a company like Boeing, abetted by outfits like GA, could assert that the numbers will be made up with those hundreds of Reapers that are programmed. As Bob Gates put it recently, the MQ-9 flies three times as far as the F-16 and stays on station five times as long. It's not remotely the same sort of airplane, but that would be the point for what's not remotely the same kind of war. But that's just the pitch they'd make.

More generally, I think that we should be careful not to assume what we're trying to prove. As I suggest with the tract on combat aircraft numbers around the world, and the remoteness of China and Taiwan from US-controlled airfields, one can argue that all those F-16s are not so useful right now.

In regards to the argument concerning the distance to Taiwan and China one could argue that it would make sense to greatly increase the number of the B-1b bomber maybe in a new stealthy fixed wing version at no more than 500 million dollar/plane replacing aircraft carrier groups, hundreds of F-35s and Japanese airbases. For 100 billion dollars we would be able to add 200 such airplanes to the already existing 68 old B-1bs. The net savings would be huge without any loss of strategic advantage. As the B-1b could release its missiles 500 miles away from its targets, it would be difficult to defeat even by T-50s.

Michael J., without getting into the economics of how much something might cost, I can say that this is a familiar argument with a good prima facie case. I still remember the essay from 2000 by William Murray, the emeritus military history professor at Ohio State, on why the F-22 and F-35 would be much less useful than a bunch of new long-ranged bombers (http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=1227). It's also an argument that Boeing might want to make, whether those bombers were manned or unmanned.

Nice write up. My fundamental question in re: JSF (and also for Osprey) is one of opportunity cost.

My next question is in why on earth the international partners are interested in JSF. I get your Italian-STOVL angle but I see no reason why STOVL must equal F-35B; maybe the STOVL part is inoffensive, but why must STOVL come via a JSF variant? It need not. And I can't see any reason why the USMC must pay the stealthy-premium. The fleet is screaming for multiple carriage racks in order to simplify combat loadouts and JSF internal bays will be insufficient for the majority of missions. Add the external pylons, still insufficient at four parent racks, and bye-bye stealthiness. So, why pay for it?

Why should the USMC pay the premium for supposed VLO for their entire tacair fleet replacement platform to get through the first few days of conventional MCO scenarios? Why subject the bread and butter combat flights like CAS, training hops, and the maintenance and logistics - lifecycle - headaches of minimizing access panels and all that skin baby-sitting, etc just for those first few and quite possibly mythical days of peer-on-peer combat?

I never believed that the USAF or USN were seriously interested in JSF. I think that both services played lip service to the high-level direction in order to get their preferred/priority programs through the gate - F-22 and Superhornet, respectively.

I'm skeptical of claims of LO. LO is more than RCS, of course - it's aspect dependent, threat-counter threat iterations may well render what was cutting edge 15 years ago mediocre in 5 or 10 years, and as observability is more than skin, it includes the full spectrum of potentially observable disturbance: wake, heat, plume, scintillation, acoustic, spectral contrast, etc.

Why would any other country want to stick its arm in the JSF tar-baby? As you note, good luck with future upgrades, recurring engineering absent the vendor-umbilical, etc. Good luck with that TSPR wall - contractual arrangements would have to be for all future integrations, major repairs, lifecycle/obsolescence efforts. JSF will become a permanent government program.

Note the pro-JSF arguments are essentially of one flavor - all eggs already in the basket. There are plenty of claims of JSF's high tech edge, but as the arguments progress with folks who know the program and the programmatics, don't the rubber seem to meet the road as "we have no other options," or in modern parlance, the JSF program is too big to fail (tri-service, international partners, etc). A nominally sufficient argument in the not-infrequently otherworldly acquisition system context of programming and budgets, but hardly persuasive in operational requirement or suitability terms.

Henry Petroski used the example of bridge design and building as an example in a general statement on engineering:

"As different as have been the bridge types involved in establishing the thirty-year pattern [of the rise and fall cycle engineering generations], they all evolved according to the general principles of design and the role played by success and failure in the design process. The more commonplace something becomes - whether it be the building of another "routine" space shuttle mission or the writing of another novel in the latest mode [or, I'd add, low observability in air vehicles] - the more there is a human tendency to gain confidence from each success. The ever-present flaws and glitches, and the little failures, become so familiar as to be ignorable, and they are ignored by all but the severest critics, whose criticisms are usually ignored or dismissed. Rather than being seen as precursors to catastrophe, the little failures are seen as nothing more than annoying blemishes attributable to the imperfections of robust things and our understanding of them.

"Even in the absence of a generational gap, individual engineers and designers can be susceptible to forgetting to be humble in the face of technology pushed toward its (unknown) limits." - Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design (Princeton, 2006), 177-178.

Is the JSF design even “robust” at this date? Will the continuing TSPR constraints result in a sensible lifecycle cost for all buyers?

Take a gun to JSF's head. No more good money after bad. Skip the 5th gen - spiral development, remember that fad? – do something else, and kill the program before it kills the DoD budget.


Thanks for the link. It is saddening to see that decisions about US Air Power is decided by the fighter pilot background of generals in charge, and not by some rational central analysis. Is there such a thing as an office for Strategic planning at the DOD ( not QDR)?
The present force structure is basically a result of WWII. Maybe in the future nuclear submarine arsenal ships would make more sense than aircraft carrier groups, dito for longe-range air strike platforms which may not have to be designed to strike deep into central asian territory, but simply would deliver ER AGM158s across oceans. For the F-35 replacing A-10s, I think here go the fighter pilots again.

This article fails to address a number of points. First, what about our fleet of F-16s that will be retiring rapidly by 2020? UAVs can't do that at this time. A new relatively low-cost fighter is needed to replace the F-16 and AV-8.

Upgraded F-15s are great aircraft and I would like to see the USAF with some, but they are quite a bit costlier than the F-35, plus they are undoubtably costlier to operate than a single-engine fighter. When it comes to replacing the AV-8, there is no other alternative than the F-35B, simply due to the fact that the AV-8 is no longer in production, and they will wear out sooner or later.

We pretty much have to get the F-35 back on track, or we need to start two new programs right now and somehow get those aircraft in service before the end of the decade.

Everytime "procurement reform" comes up it always comes down to a goal of slashing military spending in general. We need to get this Clinton-era mindset out of our heads. We need to get more out of our money but we should not be spending less. If the Republicans want to do what is best for our country they will focus on maintaining a strong military into the future. We must not follow the path the UK took following WWII and continuing today as the Royal Navy struggles just to get two carriers and possess a naval aviation capability.

William C.,

The article actually does address the issue of all those F-16s that are wearing out. As I argue in the several paragraphs on military necessity ("The JSF is just not militarily vital"), Boeing can easily make the case that US has far more fighter aircraft than it needs. It doesn't need to replace the early model F-16s because they are excess to needs even today. If they can't fight the Chinese, and they aren't going to fight the Taliban, then they're basically just an unscheduled airline.

What I didn't suggest here, but did argue a few years ago, is that the USAF could buy Super Hornets just as readily as the Navy could (“Buy Super Hornets Instead of Raptors”, Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute, January 2003). And if the USAF balked at operating that type, there's no fundamental reason that the Secretary of Defense couldn't just stand up more fighter squadrons in the Navy or Marine Corps. Boeing would be delighted with that, I'm sure. And that's the main purpose of this essay: figuring out how Boeing would make the case for its programs at the expense of Lockheed's.

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